(SPOILERS) Roundly slated, as if its troubled production and rejigged release dates condemn it to purgatory without due consideration, Dolittle isn’t nearly the abomination critics would have you believe. It makes an affable, inoffensively watchable family entertainment, lacking the bloat of the Rex Harrison version or the shamelessness of Eddie Murphy’s and one never quite at ease with itself or sure of what it wants to be, but largely underserving of being hung out to dry as the latest example of Hollywood excess; there are other, far more deserving recipients, usually found in any given calendar quarter of any given studio’s roster of releases.
Yes, sure, there’s more than enough about Dolittle that reeks of grand folly – although probably nothing quite so extensively so as Rex’s infamous, infamously Best Picture nominated incarnation – from Team Downey approving to Stephen Gaghan to direct on down (there’s nothing in Gaghan’s CV as writer, let alone director, to suggest he was a good fit for the task). And yes, there are quite believable horror stories to be found that he was clueless over how to integrate the effects into the picture (such that there was no blocking thereof, and that it ended up bizarrely animal-lite). Hence Jonathan Liebesman being brought in to beef things up on the effects/ animals side, although why anyone would ask him to help salvage a picture…
But Dolittle’s a competent latest incarnation, one that doesn’t outstay its welcome or become excessively bogged down its animal antics; to hear the stories, you’d think it had been transformed into a lowest common denominator fart fest after the fact. Yes, Frances de la Tour’s dragon needs an enema, and the creatures tend to the vernacular, but it’s a balance that would be expected in, and pragmatically needed for, a family movie; from the evidence here, I can quite believe that Gaghan’s original take tended to the dour and mournful (it’s notable that Dolittle’s wife remains dead, whereas the standard for this sort of fare would have been for her to suddenly show up, miraculously still alive and having had empowering adventures of her own).
If Dolittle lacks flair on the part of its director(s), it still looks quite pretty, thanks to Guillermo Del Toro regular DP Guillermo Navarro. The roster of locations – particularly King Rassouli’s island – put a significant wad of the money spent on screen, and the creature designs, with the exception of gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek), tend to the agreeably photo-real. Gaghan’s screenplay was rewritten by various parties (Dan Gregor and Doug Mand are co-credited, with story going to Thomas Shepherd, but Chris McKay did significant rewrites, and John Whittington was also involved, while Downey naturally and unwisely had his say).
The impression one takes away most is that of an attempt to make a certain kind of movie without the necessary creatives on board to foster the same. So Downey attempts to deliver a Depp (as Depp was a decade ago), complete with an eccentric English accent (a soft take on Windsor Davies), but lacking anything truly eccentric in this rendition of Dolittle. Or anything to promote real empathy with his character, heroic or otherwise. He’s an indulgently grieving widower finding himself again, the spark for an indulgently out-of-touch character actor turned star who has spent a decade insulated by Marvel. The picture lacks the comic canvass of the Murphy version, despite the endeavours of the reshoots, so the funny creatures are at best only mildly entertaining (ironically, it’s Ralph Fiennes’ tiger, played straight, who comes across best).
The framework of the plot does, however, provide an impetus and a more coherent one than the 60s production (the original title was The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle, but Hollywood seems to think less words are best, as its reneging on Bird of Prey’s mouthful shows). Dolittle must save a dying Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), who is in that dire state at the behest of Jim Broadbent’s Lord Badgley. He in turn is supported by Michael Sheen’s Dr Mudfly. Broadbent is given nothing to chew on, aside from a fat cheque. Sheen has slightly more going on, but it would have been nice to see him offered enough to make a memorable villain. Antonio Banderas has fun as Rassouli, the pirate king.
The picture’s main problem is that it flounders in its attempts to move out of second gear. There are nice ideas (a humpback whale as an outboard motor), and as crude as it is, the enema “climax” has its moments (the appearance of bagpipes; "We've got the whole Spanish army in there"). But there’s never the sense that inspiration is part of the equation. Emma Thompson’s talking parrot Polynesia is used to paper over the presumed editing gaps between versions, which at least means the movie doesn’t show its scars. As for the kids, Harry Collett and Carmel Laniado are inoffensive.
One might assume the critics relished the chance to give Dolittle a conscience-free kicking, knowing they didn’t have to check themselves in the face of wrath from the Twitterati. Compared to the aforementioned Birds of Prey, for example – which had largely positive reviews – this is never less than competent. Sure, it lacks kinetic energy, but it isn’t dull. I’m probably damning the picture with faint praise, as it’s both over familiar and unremarkable, but it’s also quite likeable. It would have gained points if Downey Jr had the rights to sing The Vegetarian, and if it had taken more cues from Sheen’s tendency to overplay than the animals’ potential to offer a redux of the Murphy incarnation, but to restress the opening paragraph, Dolittle really isn’t any worse than umpteen approved and certified fresh kids’ movies. It simply got the short straw of production hell and consequent green light for opprobrium.
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